How do you know the story is done?

On Saturday night, I e-mailed Red Hood’s Revenge to my editor.  This is the time when we do the Snoopy dance.  (Or we would if I hadn’t immediately turned around and messed up my back.  Sigh.)

Overall, the book took just over a year from the day I started writing.  The manuscript came in at 91,000 words, but I suspect it will grow once I have the revision chat with my editor, not to mention feedback from my agent and a few others (including one Seanan McGuire, author of the forthcoming Rosemary and Rue [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy], who reads scary fast and wrote things like “better than MERMAID”  and “brilliant.”  My ego, it is pleased.)

So how did I know the book was ready?  The easy answer is that my deadline told me.  Of course, the original deadline was 8/1, and I ended up asking for a two-week extension.  So what changed between the 1st and the 15th?  How could I tell this draft was the one I could turn in?

I knew I wouldn’t make the original deadline because I was aware of specific problems with the book.  I knew the character of Red Hood as I had written her was boring, and needed to be changed.  I knew the sequence of events near the end didn’t make sense, and I had to rework them.

That’s really all there is to it.  If I know there are particular problems I can fix, it’s my job to fix them.  This is very different from the vague sense of “I don’t know if this book is good enough, and what if it sucks and my editor drops me and I’ll never work in this town again???”  To paraphrase Douglas Adams, that’s just perfectly normal paranoia. Every writer in the Universe has that.

I could go through my draft again for another month, adding a bit of description here and there, fixing typos and maybe changing the occasional confusing word or phrase.  But I’d just be tinkering.  I’m not actually working on the story anymore, I’m just polishing a few smudges.  I’m stalling.

This is not the same process I went through ten years ago.  Today, I trust myself to spot the huge, story-crippling flaws in my drafts.  Ten years ago, I was blind to them.  (As witnessed by some of my trunked novels.)  This is why my process back then required more beta readers, usually at least 4 other sets of eyes to help catch the gaping plotholes and other problems.

I still don’t have 20/20 vision with my own work.  I know my editor will point out problems that will have me kicking myself.  I know I’ll spend another few weeks rewriting Red Hood one last time to fix them.  If there ever comes a day when my editor tells me my story is perfect as is, I’ll know it’s time to find a new editor.

The goal isn’t to make the story perfect.  If that’s the standard you’re aiming for, you’ll never send it out.  The goal, at least for me, is to make it the best story I can.  The trick is recognizing when I’ve reached that point.